In defense of film distributors

July 23, 2011
posted by sheric

It’s a shocking title coming from me, I know and I had a hard time typing it. It isn’t as though I hate distributors, it is just that I see them largely as exploiting filmmakers’ work where the filmmaker receives very little in the process. A post yesterday from Seth Godin’s Domino Project made me stop and think about it from their side. His post takes the publishers’ view but that is the distributors’ view in the book world. The situations are the same.

In his post, Godin explains that publishers (distributors) take on the financial risk of bringing work to an unknown audience which is a huge risk and why they take the lion’s share of the profit. They don’t know if their risk will pay off until these unknown people buy and, to mitigate the risk, they have to spend even more money on getting lots of attention from strangers over and over again, which puts them even deeper into the hole.

Next time you are wondering why you can’t get a distributor to take your film, think about what you would do in their situation? Whenever you make a film with no identifiable audience, no connection to an audience, no identifiable marketing hooks (like genre or star quality actors), no festival wins from pedigree fests, you are drastically reducing your chances of being picked up. I know you’ve heard this, but every week I am contacted by filmmakers who ignore all of this so the message isn’t sinking in. If you don’t have the previous situations for your film, you can’t get attention unless 1)your film is exceptional AND 2) you have a ton of money to spend on getting attention in the form of advertising and publicity and then you are taking on the risk of the distributor, trying to get attention from strangers and hoping it will pay off. For distributors, they can better afford the risk because they have lots of titles in the arsenal. You don’t. So you are left with the choice of “giving up more and more freedom and cash to [distributors] in exchange for their taking the risk of finding, alerting and selling to strangers,”┬áhoping to be picked, taking whatever deal they offer and having no say in what is subsequently done with your work


doing the hard work upfront by building an interested group of supporters for your work, to gain their trust and permission for communication, to regularly speak to them and to get their buy in BEFORE the work exists. It is much more efficient than selling to strangers after the fact. “The speed, freedom and control will transform the way you [work] as well as how you engage with your audience.”



I hear a lot from artists and art critics who say you shouldn’t promote until you have work worth promoting. I completely agree. Please don’t use this as advice for how to “promote” because building a relationship with an engaged audience is separate from promotion. Promotion is one way communication. It is the thing that advertising was made for. It isn’t the thing that is best accomplished through using social media, contrary to what corporations and “digital agencies” think.

What I am saying is genuinely become interested in who your work would touch, delight and become emotionally connected to them. Start thinking about who “they” are while you are in the process of shaping your work. Start building up the relationship with them because you truly want to reach them. I think this is what expressing yourself is all about right? Reaching others? Chances are they are a lot like you so this shouldn’t be a difficult thing. You may not even do it online, choosing real life instead. The thing online allows for is finding your kindreds all over the world rather than the limited circle in your immediate vicinity. Those friends will become your base of support and won’t be able to stop themselves from telling others and online tools are a great free carrier for word of mouth, the most authentic advertising there is. When you have that support, the financial burden becomes lighter in that you can crowdfund to make work, you can spend little to reach the audience, and you will attract partners who want to help you service those you haven’t been able to reach yet without the absolute need for you to give up rights and control over your work.

This group isn’t built overnight, or even over six months. Get started right now. You need this, they need this connection.

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